Irishman Walking (Stage 1 Chapter 11)

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Travel  |  House: Booksie Classic

Irishman Walking is about my walking the coastal roads of Japan through a series of summer, winter, spring, and autumn stages. Stage 1 began in Cape Soya in Hokkaido in the summer of 2009, and ended in Noshiro City in Akita Prefecture seven weeks later. This summer (2012), Stage 8 started at Shibushi Port in Kagoshima Prefecture on the southern island of Kyushu, and ended in the city of Fukuoka six weeks after setting off. Stage 9 is planned to start from Fukuoka City this winter and will end at Hiroshima in January 2013. The stage is planned to last for five weeks.


By Michael Denis Crossey


1 August, 2009: The morning began with a feeling of optimism. Thoughts of meeting my friend at a hotel in Otaru, good food, a hot bath, were the sorts of things I needed to think about now. The sky, too, looked like the rains would hold off, and there were enough clouds in the sky to block out the scorching sun. Most important of all, I had a healthy thirst for the road, or felt satisfied by a good sound sleep, the first in a good while. Even on those nights when it was difficult to sleep, I lay unmoving and patient to conserve energy, for when early morning came I still needed to hit the road regardless of how mentally ready I was. On those sleepless nights, too, if I were lucky, a perfect stillness would reign in over the beach, and even a restless night was comfortable. As the sun mounted higher in the sky, a welcomed breeze blew in over the open road that lay ahead of me.

You knew when you were in the vicinity of a large city. The roads seeded longer, broader, busier, and much more dangerous than at any of the other places I tramped through. “Well, almost any!” Or so I felt. There were a lot more of those frustrating traffic signals to deal with. Then again, they were an excuse to rest up for a short time when you waited for them to change. But if I had a choice, I would sooner have kept moving and stopped only whenever I chose to do so. In the cities, the traffic and the traffic lights ruled!

There were a greater variety of convenience stores, too, with names that I knew, such as, Lawson, Seven-Eleven, and so on. Then there were those stores, which I had never heard of in my life, namely, Ralse Mart, or Sellers, among others that I had not come upon as yet, no doubt. Needless to say, there were many truck stops and factories, and all kinds of companies and buildings of one shape and size, large and small. For sure, the congested urban areas stood out like a cancerous tumor, the kind of thing I felt I escaped from when I left Tokyo. What I also knew was that I could not walk anymore! My muscles were stretched to the limits. The only thing I could think about was finding a place to camp before dark fell. Doing so meant getting my butt off Route 337, for this was one fucking busy and congested please with no where to make camp proper.

Further along the road I made a little stop to take a look through my binoculars to see what I could see of useful interest. “Good!” A Seicomart convenience store lay up ahead. Near to the convenience store I could also see a road sign pointing to Otaru, which lifted my heart. Then there was a little stop in at the store to pick up a few provisions, and soon the feel-good feeling was with me once more. All that I had to do now was to get over towards the main thoroughfare that would take me out on to an even smaller and less congested side road. The side road ran parallel to the busy Route 337. “If all went well, it should do the trick in leading me to where I wanted to go. Otaro!” I thought. Through the binoculars my eyes looked far away into the distance. Far beyond the road, beyond the sea, beyond the tree clad hills in the distance, through hours, days, weeks and into the past from which I had tramped, and into the asphalt future that lay ahead of me tomorrow.

At first I expected there to be a good number of places just off the road to pitch my tent at, however, things turned out to be not as easy as I had hoped. An army of workmen and roadwork machinery were scattered about the road for quite a distance. This meant that I had to tramp a couple of kilometers further down the road than I had hoped. It was not long afterwards, when my eyes fell upon what looked like a deserted, if not completely abandoned construction site. Dropping my backpack to the ground, I surveyed the things with cold criticism. “Mmm!” It was the telling signs of the lingering recession, no doubt. The construction industry was one of the many victims, even in my own country, Ireland. Outwardly collected with the present now, I set about clearing a space to pitch the tent. In a space between the old rusty tools and dilapidated tractors and diggers, with parts missing here and there, I decided to stop the night. But first, there was the tossing away of nuts and bolts here, and broken concrete slabs and pieces of asphalt there. For a short while, I wondered if it would have not been better to move on further down the road. “What the hell! I’d slept in worse places before.” Besides, beggars could not be choosers, not that I was one, but I was too worn-out anyway to care. Someone once said that problems always looked smaller after a warm meal and a good night’s sleep. What I needed now was sleep!

2 August, 2009: Construction work on the Hokkaido roads began rather early, compared to Tokyo. That suited me just fine! Breakfast would have to wait! As things stood now, it was important for me to get away at the crack of dawn if I was to cover the thirty or so kilometers on time to meet my friend. The rendezvous was set for two-thirty tomorrow afternoon, in the lobby of the Dormy Inn Hotel. As the morning wore on, the buildup of rush-hour traffic began to materialize along Route 337, and of course along Route 5, which lead me on the final stretch towards Otaru City proper. That said, this was the most distasteful segment of my long tramp thus far. In fact, even more so than the gauntlet of monster tunnels that I needed to tramp through earlier on. Only when glimpses of my old friend the sea appeared that I felt I was escaping the clutches of this horrible urban center of Sapporo. The whole area to me looked like the outskirts of Tokyo all over again.

On a different note, my walk across the Tokinosawa Bridge last night took me right to the mouth of the 630 meter long Hariusu Tunnel. As long as the tunnel was, there were so many middle-aged men jogging through it. All of the joggers were clad in tight fitting sporty-gear, heading in both directions. "Jogging really must have been one hell of a big deal up here," I mumbled to myself, as one gray haired old fellow in a bright yellow shirt and black tight fitting leggings ran by me just now. Not since I last strolled around the Imperial Palace in Tokyo had I seen so many die-heart jogging enthusiasts in one area at one time. "Perhaps they had nothing better to do with themselves?" I thought to myself, not knowing if I was joking or serious. Then again, perhaps I was the one who really had a screw loose. Who in their right mind would spend all-day and everyday from sunrise to sunset tramping along the coastal roads of Japan? Not to mention being tired, sweaty, and smelly, with only a dip in the Nihon Kai (Japan Sea) to look forward to in the evenings, if possible. Soon I found myself skirting around the slow moving traffic on a busy road, Route 5. A restaurant on the other side of the road was my target. It was more for the urge to pay a penny to empty my bladder (urinate), than to get something into my stomach in the form of nutrition. However, and with some dismay, the doors were locked. “Fuck it! The place was closed!”

There was no point in hanging about complaining. So I skirted back across the busy road full of morning traffic to the coastal side. There, I lifted my binoculars to my eyes once more and looked out over the coastline. A large ferry was pulling away from the dock. The large words painted on the side read, Shin Nihonkai. "How many people did it have on board?" I wondered, as I redirected my view. In the distance, far below from where I stood, I could see the pleasingly beautiful irregular oblong shape of Otaru, with its buildings spread out like diamonds scattered about a tabletop. How tiny the city and everything in it looked, to me. "How much further must I tramp to reach the meeting place?" I was not yet sure if I would arrive on time to meet my friend. On an earlier phone call, I was told that the Dormy Inn Hotel was near the main train station. I was not worried about finding the place, but time that I needed to be there caused me some concern.

Otaru was a historical port city in Shiribeshi a sub prefecture, and lay northwest of the larger Sapporo, only a twenty-five minute drive away. Otaru had long served as the main port of Ishikari Bay. It was a stunningly beautiful city with many historical buildings, and a popular tourist destination to many Japanese and foreign visitors. The city had an estimated population of around 130,000. The city had in recent years grown as a bedroom community, or so it had been said that.

As expected, there were many businesses and stores that I passed on the road that led into the city proper. Onix, Yokohama, AU, Sapporo Drug Store, Idemitsu gas station, a Seven-Eleven, even a store called Lucky, there was a Yakult company building. I was happy, however, to set my eyes on a noodles restaurant, where I decided to stop or a while to rest. It was one of those fast-food kinds of eating-places that I had seen here and there in Tokyo. You pop your money into a machine, appropriately located near the entrance. Once the money was been inserted, you press the button you want and out popped a ticket, with stuff printed on it that no one ever read. Another button was pushed and I could hear my change drop one by one into a tiny tray with a plastic flap or window at the bottom. With my coins retrieved I made my way to a table. In Tokyo the staff at such places appeared to wear faces that never smiled. Here the two young girls behind the counter, who were clad in a kind of black colored Ninja uniform, really looked pleased to see me.

Both of the girls smiled at me as I set down at the table near a window. A bowl of miso-based noodles, and a bottle of beer were ordered. Soon both the orders arrived, one piping hot, and the other nice and cool. I thought the restaurant to be a proper little goldmine for the amount of customers coming and going. Then again, it was around lunchtime and an endless chain of customers came and went at such places. And, as expected at such places, it did not take long for me to consume my lunch. A young lady sitting at the next table to mine, with her male companion, said in perfect English as I stood up to leave, "Have a nice trip." "Thank you!" I answered, before complimenting her on her English. “If only she had known where I had begun my mission.” I thought to myself, grabbing hold of my backpack. “Then she might have spoken to me earlier.” Then again, perhaps if she had of been alone, I might have spoken to her first.

On the road I passed a good number of names I was familiar with in Tokyo, like the gyudon (beef bowl) restaurants, Sukiya, Matsuya, and Yoshinoya. “There must be more of them in these parts,” I thought. They offered a bowl of rice, on top of which Sukiyaki tasting beef was placed. And thinks to the price war going on between the different beef bowl restaurants they were ‘cheap’, for want of a better work. Even before the price wars, the restaurants were really very popular among the standard Japanese people, especially the men. They were the country’s beef bowl answer to the fast food hamburger giants McDonald’s. However, such restaurants, it had been argued, came to epitomize quite a destructive pattern in the country. It was a pattern that had been repeated throughout the economy since the Bubble burst. With hastily and aggressive price cuts to attract consumers, for example, various critics argued that the restaurants decimated profits, squeezed workers’ income, and drove the weaker competitors out of business altogether. At large, it was a deflationary cycle that threatened the country’s economy. I did my best to block out any thoughts and memories of life in Tokyo, but it was not easy to do.

A road sign pointed to Otaru train station. “Mmm! Good!” I thought, as it was all straight ahead now. However, I could not help but wonder what that meant in terms of kilometers. Somehow it did not matter now, I could feel by the increasing numbers of people around me, and the traffic on the road, that I was getting nearer to my destination. Low and behold, a second guidance road sign soon followed, just as I tramped past an Eneos gas station on my left. This time with both destination and distance on it; "Otaru Station 6km." It also told me that the city of Kutchan was sixty-eight kilometers and that Hakodate, where I had no intention of visiting, was two hundred and fifty kilometers further on. I remembered thinking earlier when I went over my maps, that the name ‘Kutchan’ did not sound very Japanese to me.

So now I had at least some indication at just where I was and felt confident that I could arrive at the meeting point at around two-thirty. "Good! Our times should jive just nicely." It was just then as I was congratulating myself when a rather happy looking middle-aged fellow passed me pushing a wheelbarrow full of cutgrass. The smell from freshly cutgrass was one of those kinds of smells that held a power over me, like, lifted my spirits, if not to put a smile on my face, too. How could someone not notice the power of such beautiful smells on them? According to some in the world of science, the smell of freshly cutgrass was actually a plant distress call. The pleasant smell of cutgrass was the reek of plant in distress. Therefore, whenever the grass was attacked, it released airborne chemical compounds. Scientists have found that plants could use these compounds like people use language, such as, by notifying creatures (birds) nearby to rescue them from insect attacks.

Like the effects of freshly cutgrass on the mind, whether you wanted it or not, flowers had a similar influence on me. However, according to the Internet, 'Stop and smell the flowers', was a saying that was really not related to flowers at all. Rather, it was “a reminder, a message, for each of us, to stop rushing, stop working late, time passes quickly.” In other words, it suggested that people should stop and enjoy the day, the moment and the minute. Each minute that you missed, was time lost, and which would not return to you again. Or as the saying went: ‘You could not turn the clock back, but you could wind it up again.’

A small group of mothers with their children in hand, and some elderly people, were waiting at a bus stop. Perhaps they too were heading to the main train station, or to the downtown stores to do some shopping. Outside the cities there were not many buses that passed me on my long tramp, but here was different, there were many buses. Across the road I could see a Softbank, among other famous names. It felt like I was back in Tokyo, or perhaps on the outskirts. Just then, two Chuo Buses, as was printed on the sides, stopped and soon all the waiting people were onboard. And, just as quickly as the buses had arrived, they were gone.

It was time to kick up some dust and show a pair of heels. The six kilometers ahead of me was not exactly next-door, or leisurely Sunday strolls. Idle thoughts on the disappearance of the convenience store, Seicomart, hung around me much of the day. How glad I was to see one of them again. It felt good to sit outside one of them in the hot dusty air, and downing (drinking) a well earned can of Sapporo beer. Just as I was about half way through my beer, two large vans pulled into the parking area and stopped a meter or so away from where I sat. The engines idled away, whilst the fumes from the exhaust hung about near where I sat. Three Caucasian women stepped down from the vans. There they began indulging in some kind of heated conversation of great importance, in Russian. Perhaps they had not noticed me sitting there or my backpack at my feet. Or perhaps, and rather more to the point, they did not care one way or another if I was there or not, or even if I understood what they were rambling on about. Of course, I had not the slightest idea! The exhaust fumes from the engines and the presence of the noisy women proved a bit too much for me to handle. So I got to my feet and made my way back over to the entrance of the store. However, my mind continued to work overtime with useless thoughts. Baring the Russian women who I just left, most of the people I passed on my long tramp down along the Hokkaido roads, foreign and native, acknowledged my presence in some little friendly way, a nod of the head here, or a stop for a little chat there.

What was it about the Russians I had come across in my life who seemed so hard and cold? Once some years ago I changed planes at Moscow International Airport. Most of the surrounding and neighboring countries in this vast region back then were part of the old Communist Soviet Union at that time. I recalled the rough handling of my luggage, or rather, two framed pictures that I was taking back with me as gifts for my family. It was not only me, but also the other passengers’ luggage that was being dumped onto an old rickety conveyer belt for ex-ray. Just as my things began to move along the old conveyer belt to be x-rayed, I stepped forward to reposition the pictures for fear that they would fall over and the glass on them get broken.

No sooner had I done this much when the machine was suddenly turned off, need I say, by one of the enormously muscular-cum fat women operating it. Within seconds of the conveyer belt being stopped and everything being brought to a stop, that two other rather large women, all of them clad in khaki colored trench coats, and what looked like Wellington boots came on the scene. Like some impromptu entertainment for the benefit of the passengers, all three of them embarked on one hell of a loud discussion with one another, with arms moving in all directions, as if to hammer home some point. And only stopping momentarily to glance in my direction,

At times, too, their open hands reached up towards the ceiling like they were pleading their case to some higher power, only to be clinched when they brought them down again like they were going to let somebody have it. “Me!” I wondered. I wanted to laugh, but their animated voices and body language impressed upon me that something serious warranted my immediate attention, of if I was Russian, immediate execution! All I could do was to wait for the three big women to calm down and get back to the task of ex-raying the luggage. Almost as quickly as the excitement had begun, were the buttons pushed again and the machine was up and running again with the luggage was on the move. Ever since then, I had done my best to tread lightly when in the presence of Russian people.

That was not the end of it! When I finally boarded the half filled Aeroflot flight bound for Heathrow in London I still recalled like it was yesterday walking down the isle of the cabin looking for my seat. Just then, a most attractive flight attendant blocked my way. With both of her hands on her hips, she called out at the top of her voice to me in English, "Will you hurry up and sit down. We’re waiting on you!" Startled by her sudden appearance on the scene, I jumped into the seat nearest to me, not caring if it was mine or not. I guessed it did not matter much anyway, since the plane was less than a third full mostly of Russian (or from some where in the old Soviet Union). When I did discover my seat later on in the flight, I decided to stay were I was, since the other passengers around it smoked for the remainder of the flight. As it was, the plane did not take off for another twenty or thirty minutes after my rather unwelcome encounter. At least, it was not until a party of British people, mostly men, who were members of the British-CommunistFriendship Party, boarded. Unfortunately, the group’s ninety-year-old white haired leader set down next to me, and spent the entire flight trying to indoctrinate me into their group. I recalled how it seemed to take the plane forever to get to Heathrow.

A young man working in the Seicomart convenience store told me that Otaru JR Train Station was just a little ways beyond the tunnel. "Tunnel! What tunnel?” I said. “Not another fucking tunnel," I swore to myself under my breath, as I left the store. Perhaps the rude Russian women I saw a little earlier had annoyed me. Luckily, Shihiraise Tunnel was not so massive and ran for only 505 meters. “Mmm!” Opened for business in December 1982, or as the iron plate at the entrance read. The tunnel was one of those double barrel kinds of jobs just like what I had tramped through some kilometers back.

It was not many steps out of the tunnel when a road sign told me that I still had four kilometers to go to the train station. Or an hour in terms of time! A glance at my pocket watch also told me that it would be best if there were no more stops until I got to the meeting point with my friend. The clouds that had kept the sun off me for much of the morning, now thinned out, and the afternoon rays from the sun became overwhelming. Still, one needed to be resourceful on the road in all sorts of conditions. Despite the severity of the heat around, I abandoned any thoughts of stopping to rest, even for a few minutes under a good shade. In fact, if I did not feel so pressed for time just now, I would have set down under a tall, and beautiful quality tree that soared magnificently out across the sun baked road. Its spread of lofty boughs, with a restless flutter of innumerable leaves, could have shaded me nicely from the scorching sun, for a spell.

As I commented earlier, I liked to try and think of old friends or previous lovers whenever I tramped through the massively long tunnels. Sometimes my thoughts were so clear and strong that I could almost see one of the familiar figures standing a little ways off, kind of like an apparition unexpected, now lost in the lapse of time. The thoughts were fueled by the immeasurable sweetness of a certain character, their dark narrow eyes, perhaps an interesting gaze; or by our outstretched hands touching, or sadly, by the distance that had grown between us, now so long ago. Such thoughts beckoned me from everywhere, even from the silent somber clouds in the sky as the tunnels drew near. Thinking about one of them made getting though the tunnels much less tedious.

Sometimes thinking about all sorts of things also helped me to take my mind away from the uncomfortable heat from the sun or the boredom of the long hours on the road. One of the things I though about a little while ago, for example, was the way I felt during the planning stages of my mission and the first couple of days on the coastal roads around Japan. I remembered the irresistible charm the mission had about it. During the planning stages, I had vision of the great white adventurer, a red wine and Guinness drinking, Irishman at that. The first recorded Irishman in history to walk, camp, sleep, swim, eat, drink, piss and shit around the fifth largest coastline in the world. And which all kind of made me feel that I was going to leave my mark on history in more ways then one. (Japan’s coastline length being, 29,751 km or 18,486 miles. The other countries that had longer coastlines were Canada, Indonesia, Russia, and the Philippines, respectively).

Of course, I also thought how quickly the ‘charm’ part of it soon evaporated on the first night in my tent when I was caught up in the rainstorm for a few days. Perhaps like anyone during the early stages of some great adventure about to be undertaken, dreamshad pushed me hopelessly forward, blindly kind of trusting in the future, tomorrow could wait, and every thing would be all right. In truth, it was not easy to conceive the start, let alone the ending of anything.

Back to the present, in the space of about few hours today, six Sagawa delivery trucks passed me in one direction or another. This even topped the number that I saw here and there in Tokyo on a single day. Something told me that others would pass me before my day on this hard road ended. Talk of the devil! Just as I was trying to shift my mind away from such useless thoughts, yet another Sagawa truck could be seen a little off in the distance, this time parked outside an AU shop. Printed on the side of the truck were the words: ‘SGX Sagawa Global Express’.

A Sunkus convenience store stood a short ways up ahead. When I cycled around Japan two and a half decades earlier there were hardly any places worth stopping at. In today's Japan there were probably more convenience stores than there were pubs in Ireland. The four kilometers to the train station, as the signpost earlier read, felt like it was taking me forever. Even the guidance road signs were few and far between. Of course, every step that I took brought me closer to my destination, but it would have been nicer to see it printed up on a road sign.

“Fuck it!” Suddenly other unwanted thoughts began to enter my head. Had I overshot the meeting place? Like, had gone past the station road I was to turn on to? It was true that at times concentration became difficult. Short of daydreaming, my mind had a habit of wondering off into no man's land. Or often lost in my own thoughts, mentioned above. What I did know, however, for I could feel it in my body was that I was growing tired, both mentally and physically. Usually by the end of my day on the roads my body's muscle and fat reserves were just about shot (gone). Nonetheless, I felt more in need of good healthy food to eat, whilst, sleep did not come easy last night. My steps now had shortened to a Sunday stroll. Also, the feelings that I had earlier of kicking up dust were long gone, and I found myself becoming increasingly irritable because of it. “How could six kilometers seem so long?”

As I approached the Sunkus convenience store a young staff member emerged from the door pushing a trolley loaded up with empty creates. "Am I heading in the right direction for the train station?" I asked him, trying to put a smile on my face. "Just a moment," he answered disappearing back inside the store, only to reemerge after a few seconds. In his hand he carried what looked like a map of the local area. Surprisingly, it did not take him long to show me on the map where I was, and where I wanted to go to. In the same way the smell of freshly cutgrass, or the scent of a flower in bloom could hold over me, the information from the young man rejuvenated my mind and body. Any of the stress and tensions that I had moments earlier, began to ease up. Perhaps for once I could now feel just how near I was to my destination, having a hot bath, and a badly needed rest for a few days.

Needless to say, I thanked the young man profusely for his kind assistance and turned to the road once more, this time at a quicker pace than before. It was a burst of reserve energy, which I did not know I had! On the road again my mind began to work overtime, too. I thought about the young fellow. Was he a college student working part-time? Or like many of the countries today, part-time work was the only work open to young and older people. Rightly or wrongly, it was a doggy-dog world we were all tramping together in. It did not take much longer after leaving the convenience store when at last a signpost pointed me towards Otaru JR Station.

The tramp turned out to be so straightforward that I was a little puzzled why the young man needed to show me using a map. The Japanese would never end to amaze me! The Dormy Inn, the meeting place, was on the corner of two busy roads, sharp across from Otaru JR Train Station. In fact, getting to Otaru this last couple of days had been one long, hard slog. Seventy-two kilometers in two days, to be precise! Perhaps if I had of been able to read my maps better, I would not have stopped so long at Atsuta as I did, but got a way earlier. I guess the extra day to get here would have made a big difference.

The sun beating down on me was hard enough, for even the sweat rolled off me nonstop since leaving Atsuta. Despite the severity of the sun's rays it was useless to complain. What was the point? If it was not for the little bus stop huts dotted along Route 5, where I stopped to take shelter and rest in sometimes, I had no idea how things would otherwise have turned out. The numerous convenience stores, including my favorite, Seicomart, were all right to stop in at to pick up an ice cream or a cool can of beer, but they offered little by way of a shade to sit under. Even when the buildings did cast a shadow of any worth, the fumes from the engines from the cars made them unpleasant places to stop too long at.

There was the odd occasion when I set down to rest at the rear of a convenience store when my eyes fell upon the wet stains against a wall. Perhaps some truck driver or motorist had stood facing the wall just moments earlier. My pocket watch told me that it was one-fifty, or forty minutes before the time Riko and I planned to meet. The town center looked nothing to write home about. Otaru was a mixture of the past and the present. Many of the older buildings suggested a seasonal affluent lifestyle of earlier times.

It was not until I reached Otaru that I could rest my tired legs and feet at a Mister Donuts next door to the hotel. I had arrived forty minutes shy of the scheduled meeting time, therefore my friend had not about yet! “Mister Donuts was as good a place as any to kill forty minutes in,” I thought to myself, as I pushed open the glass door and entered. After finding a table and leaving my backpack leaning against it, I went over to the counter and ordered a hot coffee and a plain donut. Back at the table, my mind did not feel much like reading the book I had brought with me, on this stage of my mission. I pulled out from the backpack some of the plain postcards that I had promised to send to some familymembers, friends, and acquaintances, and began to write a few sentences on to them: "I have just walked into the center of Otaru. Tired and worn out, as usual! I am now sitting in a Mister Donuts enjoying a cup of hot coffee, and the welcomed refills. A donut, too, but no seconds! Ha! I have not showered in four days. My body, as you might imagine, is caked with as many days of sweat and dirt from the roads. Bad!"

As I sat and gazed out off the window I began to think about looking about the city with my friend. “Otaru was a nice name!” I thought. I had long believed that the sound of words could effect a person’s feeling about the environment he or she was in. Auditory phonetics, for example, was the study of the reception and perception of speech sounds by the listener. So to me, the name Otaru had a friendly sort of comfortable sound to it. Even thought I was waiting for my friend to turn up, I was beginning to feel at home in Otaru. The name ’Otaru’ was of Ainu origin, and said to mean "River running through the sandy beach". Otaru was first designated a village in 1865, and re-designated a city in 1922. Also, the first railway line in Hokkaido, which ran between Otaru and Sapporo, came into service in 1880. The city flourished as the financial, business and trading center up until 1920s. However, following the decline of the coal industry in the 1950s, the status of Otaru as an economic hub was shifted to Sapporo. On December 26, 1924, a freight train loaded up with some six-hundred cases of dynamite exploded in Temiya Station killing around 95 people, with more than 200 others injured. Not to mention, damaging much of the surrounding area, too.

The steep slopes and small mountains that dropped to the sea characterized the southern part of Otaru. Mount Tenguyama was the most notable among them. Today, the land between the coast and the mountains was almost completely developed, with names, like, Saka-no-machi (Hill town), Funamizaka (Boat-view Hill) and Jigokuzaka (Hell Hill), and so forth. As I already knew first hand, the weather in summer could become really hot. Whilst in the winter the snows fell around November to March, with snowdrifts reaching two to three meters. It was an attractive city, or more so than most I had been to! There were many nice buildings, new and old. The many buildings I saw on my way into the city, pointed to a bright and prosperous future. Across the road from the train station stood the Dormy Inn, which took up most of a recently constructed, and rather attractive, light-brown colored, ten-story building. In fact, there were so many hotels here and there. The city attracted a large number of Japanese and foreign tourists, especially from Russia. (Otaru was a sister-city with Nakhodka in Russia).

Among the notable attractions to be visited was a canal adorned with Victorian-style street lamps. Another attraction, on the west side of the city, was Nishin Goten or the Herring Mansion. This large wooden building, built in 1897, was once the house of Hunkumatsu Tanaka, a magnate of the herring fishing industry. It was originally built in nearby Tomari village, but was moved to its current site in1958. Perhaps most interesting to me, Otaru was well known for its beer, with the Otaru Brewery located alongside the canal. Nearby, there were a number of popular restaurants, shopping arcades, and bazaars, to be enjoyed. Currently, the city’s prominent industries were its arts and crafts. With many keen skiers flocking to Otaru Tenguyama Ski Resort in winter.

3 August, 2009: It was not the most encouraging way to begin the second day in Otaru. It was Sunday and the rain was battering against the window of our room. Stopping a second night at the hotel was not in our original plans, but the miserable weather forced our hands. We decided that if we were to stop another night, then why not ask for a better room with a better view? My friend was the outgoing type of person, who could get or fix almost anything when it came to communicating face-to-face with the person in charge. Of course, my quite demeanor meant that this suited me just fine! I was more than happy to remain in the rood with my feet up in front of the television, and leave any communication with the staff at the front desk to my friend. And, anticipating the outcome, my backpack was already packed.

For sure, the new room commanded a much better view of the city. Below, I could see the hustle and bustle, and the comings and goings of the afternoon crowds and traffic. Some people waited at bus stops for buses to take them to wherever. After dumping out stuff into the room, we headed back out the door to the elevator that was still waiting. At the hotel restaurant guests made lines at the buffet tables. Some of them, shyly, spooned tiny portions of eggplant, and carrots and other vegetables onto the tiny dishes and bowls on the trays they carried. No buffet of Japanese dishes was complete without 'nato', a revolting looking food made from soybeans, and which I just loved. Perhaps more because of the way it looked than its taste, many if not most foreigners hated nato. On the western front, so to speak, there was the usual plain omelet on display, three kinds of bread pick from, some bacon, and tiny fried potatoes, small tomatoes, lettuce, plain yoghurt, and various fruits. My friend had loaded up her tray with various fish-based dishes, the smell of which proved a bit much to handle. It did not take me long to get through my own breakfast of egg, bread, and coffee.

Leaving my friend at the table reading a newspaper she picked up at the front desk, I went back up to the room to take a quick shower. The doorbell rang just as I came out of the shower. It was my friend, with the newspaper still in hand. “Miserable weather!” She said, “What shall we do?” From the window I could see some people sheltered in entrances from the rain. Across the way from the hotel I could see a ‘¥100 Yen' store. “I wonder if I could pick up an umbrella there?" I said, not really expecting an answer. My friend did not have an umbrella, neither. “Well! If we’re to look about the city, we should pick up a couple of inexpensive umbrellas first. Right?” It was a surprisingly large store, and I was sure that they sold just about anything, anything except alcohol and fags (cigarettes). My friend smoked, which was one of the things about her that I loathed. Then again, I was a liberal and tried not to care about the times she stopped to light up and smoke. For the most part, she was considerate and would keep some distance away form me she did smoke. Like a good book shop or library, looking around a large store was a good way to kill the time. When we finally left the store to have lunch at a restaurant somewhere, I was the proud owner of four T-shirts, two notebooks, and an umbrella.

As luck would have it, the rain stopped by the time we came out of the store, at least for the time being since the sky was dark and overcast. The greater part of our day was spent walking about the town. We stopped to look at the old historical buildings of touristy interest, and read up on what they were used for in their glory days. Being a lover of modern history, the stops at the former branch of the Nihon Yusen Company of 1906, the Bank of Japan of 1912, now a financial museum, suited me just nicely. Also, the Otaru Museum that housed many artifacts for those interested to the city's railway past. We stopped off to take a look at the former Temiya Line that was in service from 1880 right up until 1985. Even with the miserable weather that hung threateningly over our heads, our three-day stop in this hilly city had been a most informative one.

It was around eight in the morning when we made our way to the second floor for breakfast. This time the buffet style breakfast tables consisted of numerous kinds of fish and edible sea urchin dishes, like, uni (sea urchin), ikura (salmon eggs), ika (cuttlefish), kai (shellfish), and yakizakana or baked salmon, not to mention various kinds of shellfish. This was the sort of seafood stuff that I found difficult even to look at, let alone think about. I promptly did my best to avoid them at all costs. My disgust for the seafood dishes did not hold water with my friend, who set before me tucking into bowls of it. To my dismay, she consumed just about every type of fish-dish from the breakfast display tables she could get her hands on.

There were a whole host of vegetables and various kinds of rice dishes, all neatly placed upon tables covered with white sheets. The rice, for example, came in three styles, plain white rice, and rice mixed with seafood, which I had no intention of sampling. Then there was mixed rice that contained ten different kinds of grain, which I was interested to try. Next to the rice display, there were two kinds of 'misoshiru' or miso-based soup on offer: 'kani' with a crab base, and the so-called normal kind containing 'wakame' or seaweed and 'tofu' or bean curd. There were also various kinds of 'tsukemono' or Japanese pickles, like, 'umeboshi' (dried plumb), 'hakusai' (a kind of pickled cabbage) 'tsukimono' (mixed pickles that contained cucumber). With thoughts about tramping the long hard roads tomorrow, I got stuck into the food on the western buffet tables. It was kind of like leaving no prisoners alive on the western front. One good thing, I felt, about stopping at a good hotel was the quality and quantity of the food on offer. Good food was very important at anytime! There were a few, or what I deemed to be, very important points when selecting food supplies to carry with me on my mission. In the first place, the food needed to be as wholesome and as nourishing as possible. Secondly, it did no good to stock up on food items, for it added to the weight on my shoulders.

So whatever food I did need to carry with me, like nuts and dried fruit, and so forth, needed to be kept at a bare minimum. Even a plastic bag full of almond nuts was not exactly light. A couple of decades ago I would have given what food I carried much more consideration. In the early days of my planning for my mission I thought it important to secure a large amount of different light foodstuff, but I soon saw the impossibility of this. Today, however, there was sure to be a convenience store or restaurant at least with in 30 kilometers of each other. At camp in the evenings when I did wish to cook something on my little trusty Captain Stag burner, the food had to be suitable enough so as not to require prolonged cooking. Or like the British explorer, Ernest Shackleton, wrote almost one hundred years earlier on his epic attempt to reach the South Pole, “It must be possible to eat the foods without cooking at all, for the fuel may be lost or become exhausted.” The atmospheric pressure level differences, such as, at different altitudes greatly influenced how quickly water boiled. For example, I read somewhere that water boiled a lot faster on the top of Mount Everest than it did down here at sea level. Thanks to my little Capt. Stag burner, the water temperature needed to reach one-hundred degrees Celsius before I was able to have a cup of tea or coffee. It took around three minutes to boil 300 milliliters of water.

Consequently, it gave me no pleasure to admit that I had a lot of experience on losing and exhausting things on the road. And which probably would have drove the English explorer Captain Robert Scot mad, as he was very methodical and meticulous with his planning on his South Pole expedition in 1910-12. Some thinkers felt that this was probably one of the reasons why the Norwegian explorer to polar-regions Roald Amundsen, beat Scot to the pole by some five weeks. Unlike Scot, Amundsen dispensed with all the formalities of planning and, with less equipment to worry about or to bog him down, he went for broke, on skies.

Nevertehless, nothing usually turned out the way great explorers, like Scot, Amundsen, the Irishmen Tom Crean, and Ernest Shackleton and others, planned or hoped they would. Often they were forced to eat their dogs and ponies in order to survive; though this was factored into Amundsen’s plan from the outset. Scot (and four collogues who accompanied him) died on the return journey after reaching the South Pole, in part from starvation. Whilst Shackleton came close to it a few years later! Crean, who was part of the Scot expedition, was also part of the rescue team that found Scot’s body some six months later. What bothered me more now was not so much a lack of food, but the miserable weather outside. From the hotel restaurant windows, the gray clouds in the sky remained heavy. For the most part the weather in Hokkaido had been 'bad', to put it plainly. The weather on our first day in Otaru was unpredictably summer-like. The next couple of days reverted back to a cold breeze and the intermittent rainfall.


Submitted: July 17, 2013

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